Farmers, ranchers outline problems with coastal rules


Issue Date: May 15, 2013
By Kate Campbell

Concerns about inconsistent and arbitrary regulation arose as farmers and ranchers spoke before the California Coastal Commission during a workshop in San Rafael last week. About 75 farmers and ranchers from coastal counties outlined regulatory problems they say harm coastal agriculture, rather than protecting it as required by state law.

"The protection of agriculture is a priority of the Coastal Act, and in fact farmers and ranchers are the best stewards of the land," said Chris Scheuring, California Farm Bureau Federation natural resources counsel.

Scheuring urged the commission to consider hiring an agricultural specialist, which "could help alleviate concerns about obtaining permits for basic agricultural infrastructure."

California Cattlemen's Association President Tim Koopmann noted that the California Coastal Act of 1976 places protecting agriculture on par with protections for open space and public access. But as regulations have evolved, Koopmann said, they often prohibit farmers and ranchers from continuing to manage their land while at the same time providing habitat, open space and agricultural products.

"We implore you to consider a partnership with agriculture when interpreting and developing policy, and take the time to understand the issues important to ranchers and farmers in California's Coastal Zone and throughout the state," Koopmann said.

In addition to commission staff presentations on regulatory implementation, the workshop included panel presentations by agricultural experts. California Department of Food and Agriculture Undersecretary Sandra Schubert provided an overview of California's $43.5 billion agricultural sector, with an emphasis on trends in coastal agriculture. Albert Straus, Marin County dairy farmer and president of Straus Family Creamery, offered a farmer's perspective and stressed that rather than degrading coastal resources, agriculture is part of the solution to protecting them.

During a public comment period, farmers and ranchers laid out problems they face with current interpretations of the Coastal Act.

"Only last month, the commission narrowly approved an agricultural project on condition that grazing be subject to annual reporting and adaptive management, including that agricultural and conservation easements be recorded and grazing setbacks of more than 100 feet from a riparian corridor be established," Santa Barbara County Farm Bureau President Paul Van Leer told the commission. "Such actions are unprecedented and very harmful to the continuation of agriculture in the coastal zone."

Van Leer said he hoped the workshop would underscore that the Coastal Act does not authorize the commission to usurp local government authority. He suggested the commission move away from the "false dichotomy between coastal agriculture and environmentally sensitive habitats, because they're interdependent."

Some workshop participants pointed out that farmers and ranchers in coastal growing regions often don't even try to secure permits through the commission because they already know the answer—no.

Cody Strode, whose family ranches near Tomales Bay in Marin County, told the commission that under current interpretations of the act, he must house the chickens he raises in five separate portable structures, because he cannot secure a permit to build a single, permanent structure on his family's ranch.

Jay Russ, past president of the Humboldt County Farm Bureau, said he hopes the commission's role doesn't become punitive. He described recent commission citations for a 100-year-old practice of silt removal on a local river, a practice currently being used on other North Coast rivers by federally sponsored restoration projects.

Several speakers pointed to commission orders that Drakes Bay Oyster Co. in Point Reyes curtail its aquaculture operation as the kind of action that undercuts the commission's claims to support and promote agriculture as required under the Coastal Act.

In some areas, the commission has prohibited replanting land that had been fallowed, as an intensification of farming. Crop rotation practices, removal of hedgerows and windbreaks have also been prohibited.

Norm Groot, Monterey County Farm Bureau executive director, who attended the workshop, also reminded the commission in writing that "crop rotation is part of a healthy working environment for farming. Farmers should be free to rotate into crops as market demand dictates, allowing for a continuity of production patterns that supply our fresh produce markets."

In Santa Barbara County, speakers said, a ranch family is in the process of renovating a century-old farmhouse with the intention of living in it. But work on the house was halted when the commission ruled the renovation constituted an "intensification" of use. The family is now filing suit.

Marin County Farm Bureau President and dairy farmer Dominic Grossi told the commission, "We hear a lot about flexibility in applying regulations. Yet coastal farm families can't build additional homes so family members can live on the ranch. I wouldn't be a dairyman today if we weren't able to build our home there."

"Coastal agriculture can't sustain the burden of obtaining permits for constantly changing conditions," Santa Barbara County rancher Kim Kimball said. "Farmers need more options in the coastal zone, not more adversaries. I encourage the streamlining of permits."

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at kcampbell@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.